SNAPkids is a non-profit organization dedicated to enriching the lives of children with disabilities by providing community-based swimming and fitness activities. By providing volunteers with a chance to work closely with our special swimmers, we open hearts, change attitudes and create more respectful, inclusive, and just communities. Learn more at: snapkids.org
What calls you to volunteer? Whether to help others or learn something new, there are many reasons people seek out volunteer opportunities. For Jon, who’d been struggling with mental health challenges in the midst of the COVID pandemic, compounded by the loss of one of his closest friends, it was the desire for positive change in his life.
While on deployment with the US Coast Guard, where he works as an electronics technician (and, on occasion, as a cutter rescue swimmer), he started looking for volunteer opportunities through VolunteerMatch. During his search, he stumbled onto the opportunity to volunteer with SNAPkids as a swimming partner with disabled children, and knew immediately that this was what he was looking for – that this was for him and this is where he could make a difference. “It just called to me,” he says, “With SNAP every weekend, there’s no more drowning myself in sorrow. I come to the pool and I don’t know what I’m going to be doing, but I know it’s going to be good.”
The volunteer experience
When prompted, Jon affectionately lists off each of the kids he’s worked with, noting in detail how each child has their own preferences and idiosyncrasies which he’s learned from his time in the pool with them. It’s clear he has been a careful student of the swimmers he works with and knows exactly who enjoys talking, who likes playing games, who prefers more personal space, and who loves to zip around the pool as fast as they can.
“You have to figure out how to communicate with the kids,” Jon explains. “It’s about finding their language and finding something to connect with each child on. Listening is really critical.… You learn the little things that the kids love.” He then gives an example of how Sam, an arcade game-loving eleven-year-old, responds when Jon pretends to insert a coin to “start” Sam in the pool. Sam takes his cue, performs a little animation for the game starting and knows it is time to focus. This fun ritual is part of a weekly routine they’ve established together and an example of Jon’s creativity, dedication, and attentiveness.
Jon also spent several weeks working with another swimmer, 13 year old Yani, who was struggling to find the confidence to put his head under water. One weekend, Jon casually ducks under the lane line and looks back at Yani, and, with gentle encouragement, explains that in order to get over to the next lane, Yani would have to go under the lane line, too. Jon patiently demonstrates again how he did it. To everyone’s surprise, Yani copied Jon. Jon sheepishly laughs remembering the moment with a sense of wonder and pride noting, “He looked kind of mad but he did it – and he didn’t even know what he’d done! He did it, and I was a part of it. The kids do it themselves, but every time I go to the pool it’s a big boost to my confidence when I see the kids accomplish something I’ve helped them do.”
Jon reflects on how each of these kids find so much joy in the water in spite of the daily challenges many of them face in moving their bodies in ways so many of us take for granted. “It’s crazy how brave they are.” It’s what’s made the biggest impression on him during his time at SNAP. “These kids are braver than you are. You think you’re scared of trying something new? Imagine these kids jumping in a pool with you. They love it and that’s not what I was expecting…When I leave the pool sometimes, I get emotional because I really had an effect. I impacted somebody’s else’s life.”
It's these moments that have a profound effect on Jon. It’s this understanding that SNAPkids provides a unique opportunity to grow, learn, and find real connection with truly special children and community with other volunteers. It’s recognizing how we affect one another’s lives for the better when we create inclusive, accessible places that celebrate achievements both big and small. Jon shares that when he’s helping parents transition their kids to the pool at the start of class, he’ll often say, “’Thank you for bringing your kid,’ and when I say it to them, I truly mean it.”
A changed perspective
When asked whether there’s anything about volunteering that’s surprised him, Jon fully lights up talking about one very young swimmer that he feels a special connection to: Carter. When he sees Carter smile, he says, “I’m surprised by how happy it makes me.” Around Halloween, Carter’s dad walked over to Jon, already in the pool, to show him Carter’s skeleton costume. It was then that his father opened up to Jon about Carter’s health conditions and the challenges he faces in his daily life. Jon says that hearing these challenges really affected him and made him appreciate even more how quick Carter still is to share a smile and play in the pool. This deeper understanding of what kids with disabilities and their families face has changed Jon’s perspective and has given him an appreciation for the precious time he gets to spend with these amazing children. It also underscores why SNAPkids’ model of having volunteers work one-on-one with kids with disabilities is so transformative. The strong bonds that form between swimmers and volunteers are genuine and mutually beneficial.
Jon thinks often about the kids he works with outside the pool. For him, they are true inspirations and he takes great pride in what he sees them accomplish in the water, as well as in his role supporting their accomplishments. “I’m confident in what I’m able to do. I see it in the kids I’m able to help. I came into SNAP broken and the kids don’t even realize how much they help me and how much confidence they give me.” He also shares that being part of SNAP “gives me the biggest mental reset and a lot of motivation for the week ahead. My friends see how happy it makes me.”
SNAPkids volunteers are also integral to the fabric of the organization’s vibrant, supportive community. In describing his experience with his fellow volunteers, Jon says, “When you go into the pool with those people, everyone interacts. You don’t have to know that person, but it gels…it’s magic. There’s a shared camaraderie. As volunteers, we see the way each of us are working together with the kids in the water and we give each other a lot of positive feedback, and respect, we’re a true team.”
The final word
Reflecting on how volunteering with SNAPkids has affected him, Jon says, “For the first time, I’m pursuing this for myself and only for myself. Helping these kids helps me. Really. I didn’t think it was going to be this great. I’m helping these kids, they’re helping me. It’s a true gift.”
Guest Post: Dulcey Reiter, SNAPkids - Special Needs Aquatic Program